Patients at Whangārei Hospital are reportedly getting poor outcomes because of long-running underfunding and resourcing, staff say.
The scheduled $759 million rebuild of the ageing hospital is offering little comfort as staff believe it will already be out of date by the time construction is completed in 2031.
However, Te Whatu Ora disagreed. The health authority claimed the new facilities will be fit for purpose as capacity will increase and more efficient services on hand.
An Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) member and cardiologist at the hospital, who did not want to be named, said the current infrastructure was “not sufficient” for day-to-day usage.
He said patients were having to be seen at a separate location on Commerce St in downtown Whangārei as there was no clinic space at the hospital.
“Patients are getting poor outcomes. It’s not a healing space and it’s not a healthy space.”
New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) delegates from Whangārei Hospital said patients are waiting up to eight hours in the Emergency Department due to a lack of space. Others are sent to Auckland to be treated, particularly in the paediatric unit.
The pressure on the hospital can be seen through the number of code-black situations triggered in the emergency department this year. The hospital uses a colour-coded system to highlight potential risks or issues that require further action.
Black is the highest of the department’s colour-coded escalations - which include green, amber and red - and are triggered depending on patient numbers, acuity, patient waiting time and resuscitation bed capacity.
This year the hospital has recorded 372 code blacks up to September 12. The figure is closing in on last year’s total of 574 and has already superseded the 328 triggered in 2021.
However, Te Whatu Ora did note that the criteria for the criteria for a code black in ED had changed several times in the past three years, so reliable comparisons were difficult to make.
The country’s leading health authority said in an Official Information Act request that the colour status can change back and forth in minutes over the course of a 24-hour period.
“The ED may arbitrarily trigger a particular colour status multiple times in one day as demand and pressures change.”
The NZNO delegates said equally troubling was that the mental health ward (Tumanako) was “always full”, meaning patients could get stuck in ED for more than 24 hours. They were often placed in a medical ward due to the lack of space.
Tumanako, which opened in 2011, underlined the absence of future planning as the facility “outgrew its purpose” five years ago, they said.
They praised the hospital’s “amazing” staff, who have had to work at a facility where “every ounce of space has been stretched to its limits” and morale was eroding.
Te Whatu Ora did not directly respond to the Advocate’s questions about staff concerns over current working conditions.
The cardiologist felt as though staff, who have the best grasp of the situation, were not being listened to at a higher level.
He claimed the same issues will surface at the new hospital if more funding was not allocated toward future growth projections.
“The amount of attention that a hospital build has on ministers’ minds is just a symptom of a larger lack of attention to the health system,” he said.
Te Whatu Ora’s interim group director operations, Alex Pimm, said some buildings at Whangārei Hospital are more than 70 years old and he acknowledged the facility is “not fit for purpose”.
But the new build - dubbed Project Pihi Kaha - will meet demand, he said.
“With a growing population and increasing demand for health services, some spaces are not large enough or as user-friendly as required.
“That is why the new hospital build is an important investment to future-proof the district’s main hospital, to provide modern and efficient health services and expand capacity.”
Pimm said there will be a new facility to increase physical capacity, while creating more modern and fit-for-purpose facilities, including larger clinical areas and additional spaces.
“With improved staff and public areas and culturally inclusive spaces that align with a Māori worldview, the new hospital will create a more welcoming and calming atmosphere for Te Tai Tokerau patients and visiting whānau for generations to come.”
Brodie Stone is the education and general news reporter at the Advocate. Brodie has spent most of her life in Whangārei and is passionate about delving into issues that matter to Northlanders and beyond.